Chicago Classical Review ”” Newberry Consort’s lively “Mexican Christmas” warms up a chilly night

The Newberry Consort presented its “Mexican Christmas” program Friday evening at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston. File photo: Newberry Consort

The Newberry Consort brought some Mexican warmth to a cold Chicago night with its annual “Mexican Christmas” concert program Friday night at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.

Now in its 15th season, Chicago’s oldest early music ensemble presented a program inspired by descriptions of 17th-century Mexican convents, where people gathered outside the cloister walls to hear the nuns sing musically. performed, while groups of villancico played outside the doors of the convent. .

These orchestras, composed of traditional musicians playing folk instruments, played to celebrate the novitiate leaving the secular world to enter the life of a nun. The result is a striking stylistic contrast between the solemn and intoxicating polyphony inside the convent and the hoarse sounds outside in the plaza.

The Newberry Consort has cleverly achieved this effect by having two ensembles: a convent ensemble (The Newberry Consort) and a villancico ensemble (with musicians from the EnsAmble Ad-Hoc). The convent ensemble, made up of female voices and a handful of basso continuo instruments, was tactfully masked in the dark choir stalls behind a screen on which texts and translations were projected, while the ensemble villancico, dressed in bright colors, played and sang in front of the screen.

This contrast was particularly effective in the theatrical opening. The instrumentalists came out to tune, but it turned into a lively folk music introduction, with the singers from the villancico ensemble singing as they climbed up from the back of the church and joining in more from the benches, making the public a de facto part of the village cohort. Once the villancico singers reached the front of the church, plainsong accents from the entire convent pierced the texture. The villancico group looked back in false confusion, giving way to “Christus natus est nobis” by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, which mixed plain-song verses with polyphonic choruses.

The unison of the “nuns” in this dizzying moment was impeccable and the plainsong well paced. Throughout the program, singers from the entire convent, under the direction of renowned early music soprano and Newberry Consort co-director Ellen Hargis, sang with magnificent laser-focused sound that echoed gloriously in the Gothic Revival Church. . However, there were times when that tone was a bit rushed and landed below pitch, especially in early sopranos. Additionally, some of the tempo changes within songs could have been sharper and more assured.

The most impressive piece among the selections of the convent was “Qué música divina” by José de Cáseda. The text praised the infinite power of music to move the human soul; therefore, there have been many moments of intelligent text painting, such as the chromatically rising melody and the delicious dissonances over the text “it uplifts the senses and makes us pale.” This piece also had several impressive solo opportunities, for which it would have been nice to see the singers.

The offerings of the whole convent alternated with the villancicos of the brass band in the square. As EnsAmble Ad-Hoc directors Francy Acosta and José Luis Posada explain, these celebratory songs “reflect the mix of Spanish and African elements during colonial times in Mexico.” Many of the songs are structured as entertaining dialogues between bucolic characters, including a humorous line about bringing a talking parrot as a gift for the baby Jesus. They also often contain elements of dance, which makes them nice foils to esoteric sacred music.

The singers of EnsAmble Ad-Hoc were joined by a collection of traditional percussion instruments and descendants of the Spanish guitar. It would have been nice to have a better balance of male and female vocals in the group, but the current and stylistically flexible voice of tenor Matthew Dean provided a solid foundation. Another vocal star of the Villancico cohort was soprano Carolina Gómez, who gave a touching solo in Padilla’s tender lullaby-like song, “Si al nacer, o miniño”.

The two groups joined forces for the final play on the program, “Convidando está la noche” by Juan García de Zéspedes, with the nuns coming out of their cloisters to join in the festivities. The combined sound of the two groups was invigorating, although it took some effort for the audience to clap with the music in the cold nave.

Newberry Consort’s “A Mexican Christmas” will be rehearsed Sunday at 3 pm at Mother of the Americas Parish in Chicago.

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